Akrotiri: the rise and fall of a prehistoric harbour town

5 mins read
The extraordinary preservation at Akrotiri, with prehistoric buildings still standing two or even three storeys high, is due to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. Initial excavations at the site in 1967 came about because of curiosity concerning this eruption, and whether it could have triggered the collapse of Minoan Crete. Here we see the outer face of a building known as West House.

When excavations at Akrotiri commenced in 1967, they revealed a prehistoric town with buildings still standing two or even three storeys high. More than 50 years later, the story of the life and death of an extraordinary settlement is still being teased out. Christos Doumas told Matthew Symonds about a surprising new discovery, and explained why this coastal town has been nicknamed the ‘Venice of the Prehistoric Aegean’.

The town suffered damage from an earthquake before the eruption. While pottery and furniture – sometimes preserved by filling voids in the pumice with plaster of Paris – remained in place, the bodies of those killed were recovered and buried before the town was destroyed.

It was once thought that an earthquake could be credited with saving many lives in the prehistoric town at Akrotiri. In the late Bronze Age, the Aegean island of Thera – now known as Santorini – was rocked by a powerful tremor. Multi-storey buildings with stone walls held fast by no more than clay, earth, and straw suffered serious damage. Glorious painted frescoes were wrenched from the walls and tumbled to the ground. Whole fragments were pulverised into dust by the force of collapsing masonry crashing down from one, two, or three storeys above. Everyday accoutrements of life were left abandoned or broken amid these wrecked houses. But the dead were not. Instead, it seemed that the survivors had recovered the bodies of the victims and buried them. Then, after surveying the devastation, the inhabitants elected to give up their ruined homes and evacuate the island. It would have been a wise decision, as the earthquake proved to be only the prelude to the true cataclysm. Thera was a volcano, and it erupted soon afterwards, submerging the prehistoric town under tonnes of pumice.

Excavations are under way in a building known as the ‘House of the Benches’. This was separated from the rest of the town by a paved yard and consisted of a row of at least three rooms. Here the second room from the entrance is being inspected.

Sadly, more recent evidence has shown that the survivors of the earthquake were not long-gone when Thera blew. Like so many communities faced with disaster – ancient and modern – they had gritted their teeth and set about making good the damage. ‘We discovered that work to prepare for the restoration of the buildings following the earthquake had started before the volcano erupted,’ explains Christos Doumas, Director of Excavations at the Prehistoric Settlement of Akrotiri, Thira, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Athens. ‘So now we think that lives must have been lost, because people had returned and were beginning to repair their houses. When the eruption started, it is likely that those working in the ruins fled. The archaeological evidence suggests that a westerly wind was blowing on the day, so I suspect that they travelled as far westwards as possible to avoid the poisonous gases released by the volcano. But I don’t believe that they ever left the island, because there was no time. They are probably still somewhere to the west of Akrotiri: buried, just like their town.’ Those lying entombed on Santorini are unlikely to have been the only victims of the volcano.

From the ashes

‘Excavations at Akrotiri were initiated by Professor Spyridon Marinatos in 1967’, says Christos, ‘with the aim of proving a theory from the 1930s about the collapse of Minoan Crete being caused by the volcanic activity. When he started, he did not expect to find such well-preserved buildings. Instead, he opened a series of trial trenches across the bed of a ravine that more or less connects the modern-day village with the sea. Local farmers had told him that every time there was torrential rain, pottery and walls appeared. Marinatos soon realised that in the banks of the ravine there were prehistoric buildings still standing two or three storeys high. Almost every building that he had touched with these trial trenches showed evidence of having at least one room decorated with a wall painting. That was a most impressive finding, and from that moment on he forgot all about his theory, because what he had discovered was so much more important. Afterwards, he dedicated all his time, energy, and influence to secure the funding necessary to proceed with a systematic excavation. I first became involved there in 1968, because Marinatos was my professor at university, and I had already made a career as Curator of Antiquities in the Cyclades. So I was invited to join his team, and of course I accepted. When Marinatos died in September 1974, I was appointed as his successor, and I have directed work at the site ever since.’

Some of the frescoes are currently being restored. These fragments show part of a figure of a man carrying a ship’s rudder and would have originally adorned the staircase of a major public building now known as Xeste 4.

Despite the extraordinary preservation of prehistoric Akrotiri, the same rains that had peeled back the pumice to expose the buried archaeology posed a major threat to its survival. A cover building was raised over the buried town, allowing excavations to proceed while the structures they exposed were protected. In 1999, work started on replacing the original cover with a state-of-the-art bioclimatic roof spanning three acres. This was completed in 2012, and today the shelter is capped with earth, allowing it to sit unobtrusively in the landscape. Underneath, the site is automatically kept cool, as concealed fans extract the hot air exhaled by thousands of visitors. As well as safeguarding the fragile buildings and frescoes, installation of the new shelter presented an opportunity to explore the very beginning of settlement at Akrotiri.

The second room from the entrance at the ‘House of the Benches’ contained a pile of terracotta chests. They were not well-fired during production, suggesting they were custom-made to receive objects destined for deposition.

‘To support the new shelter, we had to excavate deep into the bedrock on which the city was founded,’ says Christos. ‘This produced a lot of information from the early phases, so we know the development – at least as far as the pottery is concerned – from the Neolithic down to the Late Bronze Age, when the site was destroyed. Unfortunately, the part of Akrotiri that dates to the Neolithic period is unexcavated because it extends beyond the southern limit of the shelter. But we can tell from the pottery that the settlement developed from about the middle of the 5th millennium BC onwards. Excavations undertaken in preparation for the new cover building exposed a lot of material from the Middle Bronze Age, which had previously been ignored. This is an important period, when trade started increasing in the Cyclades and coastal harbour settlements begin emerging. By the Late Bronze Age, Akrotiri can be thought of as a cosmopolitan merchant town with trading links throughout the eastern Mediterranean.’

Found in the ‘House of the Benches’, this Cycladic figurine would have been made over a thousand years before the Late Bronze Age style chest that contained it.

The house is not a home

While Akrotiri reached the pinnacle of its splendour thanks to contact with other cultures, its inhabitants seem to have been equally interested in honouring the links with their own past. Ongoing excavation and conservation work at the site are currently being funded by Kaspersky Lab. Thanks to this support, archaeologists have been investigating a small and mysterious building known as the ‘House of the Benches’, which differs from those that have previously been explored. The building owes its name to the presence of seating either side of a narrow, 80cm-wide entrance-way. But while the reference to ‘benches’ in its modern name is wholly accurate, the description of the structure as a ‘house’ is not. There is no sign of either the various utensils that would be needed if people were living inside, or the frescoes that typically adorn dwellings and public buildings. Instead, the ‘House of the Benches’ seems to have hosted some rather more enigmatic activity.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 93 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All photos: courtesy of Berkeley Communications

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